St. Francis High School junior Bianca Quirz had no idea she loved photography until she had the opportunity to take a class this past school year.
She says Kathy Carlisle – the school’s visual arts instructor for photography, painting and sculpture – was her inspiration.
“(Carlisle) encouraged me to get out there and try it, and I fell in love with it,” Quirz said. “She’s just so full of energy and when she comes into the classroom, I’m awake and ready to work. That’s one of the classes that’s my favorite and when I come to school I just look forward to that class.”
As one of her project’s in Carlisle’s photography class, Quirz was asked to create a photograph that conveyed the emotions and personal stories of a survivor or someone who had perished during the Holocaust. The Holocaust, although it affected American citizens or those who ultimately became American citizens, is not generally considered a period in American history – rather, European history.
“I was really surprised, I wouldn’t expect that in a photography class,” Quirz said. “I was actually learning about it in my history class, so I thought it would be a great opportunity to capture certain emotions in photos.”
Her photo is called “Hands of the Innocent” and is a photo of a pair of hands that uses double exposure and color shifting.
“It’s a very simple photograph, but very jarring and provoking,” Quirz said.
Quirz says the concept behind her photo was the children during the Holocaust.
“They were so innocent and to be able to see something so painful and just horrific at the time, especially in the concentration camps,” she said. “So that’s what I was going for, that was my inspiration.”
She also feels that by creating art on such an event, she’s helping to teach younger generations about what happened to help ensure it never happens again.
“I just want people to feel the emotion they felt back then,” Quirz said.
So why select such a dark topic as the Holocaust as the basis for a student art project?
Carlisle says it all began with her upbringing in Detroit during the 1960s.
“Social justice issues were a part of my upbringing, and really, as an artist, I have always sought to determine how art could play a role in that,” she said.
When joining the faculty at St. Francis High School more than four years ago, Carlisle found that Catholic social teachings were integrated into the entire curriculum, including art. During her first year on campus, she developed a unit for both the visual and performing arts where they would focus on the Holocaust for one semester.
“I’ve taught it every year and for me it’s just a really compelling way to help students understand how those issues of racism and genocide actually apply to their lives today,” she said.
Additionally, by selecting an historic event, students need to work on their research skills to develop their “artist’s statement,” that is the basis of their work.
Part of the assignment was for the students to research and use personal narratives from Holocaust survivors, or from those who perished, and then use a visual symbol or metaphor to represent that person’s life or some aspect of that person’s story.
“The challenge for them is, of course, we’re not able to travel back in time,” Carlisle said. “They’re having to make a symbol in their contemporary life that somehow embodies what their interpretation is of that person’s life. It’s honestly a pretty complex and challenging assignment and I think they were pretty masterful – they did a great job. They worked really well with their art elements and principles, and all the benchmarks that they needed in their state standards. And of course, for me it’s really important to see that young people are able to understand the social context of art making and what art can do to help the world understand what these issues are.”
Sharing with others
All the students’ photography was placed in a collection called “The Holocaust: Illuminated Memory,” which Carlisle says, thanks to support from community members, has received quite a bit of interest.
For example, the collection was shown this year at Yom Ha’Shoah memorial and KOH Library and Cultural Center, both in Sacramento.
The students’ work can also be viewed on a blog Carlisle put together for the project at stfrancisholocaustphotography.blogspot.com.
The collection was also exhibited at St. Patrick’s Academy in Sacramento, where some of Carlisle’s students took things a step further by developing an education lesson to present to seventh graders at St. Patrick’s.
“They talked to those students about their work, their photographs and then they did a drawing exercise with them about the Holocaust,” Carlisle said. “It gave them an opportunity in another context to understand how viewers could take their work in. (To) then try to convey that lesson to other students was pretty impressive.”
Quirz says she loved seeing her work on display.
“It was actually very exciting for me because I’ve never had work put out for an art show or anything like that,” she said. “It’s a very interesting experience to go around and then all of a sudden wow, my work’s right there.”
And in April 2013, the student collection has been invited to show at The Quarter Gallery at the Regis Center for the Arts at the University of Minnesota.
“That’s a pretty high honor for high school students to have a university show – the girls are really excited about it,” Carlisle said.
However, the students are not the only ones receiving honors.
Carlisle herself is one of 26 fellowship awardees of the 2012 Memorial Library Summer Seminar on Holocaust Education. In early July, Carlisle flew out to New York City to teachers and civic organization leaders to learn new methods and approaches for teaching the Holocaust with the goal of fostering an agenda for social justice in their classrooms and communities.
Through her fellowship, Carlisle is hoping to improve the quality and depth of how she teaches the Holocaust in the classroom to help improve her students’ understanding of the event.
“I also really want to increase the integrity and the creative responsibility or integrity that I see that is inherent in working with the Holocaust – I want to build the breadth as well as the depth of what I bring to the classroom,” she said. “I know after this fellowship that I will come back a completely renewed scholar of the Holocaust.”